Six Montabella graduates find a way to triumph over tragedies (Photo Gallery)

By Elisabeth Waldon • Last Updated 10:44 am on Monday, May 21, 2012

From left to right, Michael Hewitt, Danielle Moreland, Emily Malina, Tori Patch, Dusty Snow and Paul Bellingar will be graduating from Montabella High School on Thursday night. — Daily News/Cory Smith

The 50-some seniors in Montabella High School’s graduating class of 2012 each have their own unique personality, style and future ahead of them.

But six of those seniors have experienced their own personal heartbreak — tragedies no one would wish on any young man or woman.

Maybe in another lifetime, Danielle, Dusty, Emily, Michael, Paul and Tori wouldn’t have been friends. Maybe they only would have been vaguely aware of each other’s existence as classmates passing in the hallway. But their shared sense of loss has created a common bond between them, and new friendships and successes are blooming as a result.

‘I didn’t want my whole life to revolve around my tragedies’

Tori Patch was 10 when her mother died unexpectedly on June 8, 2005.

Tori knew something major had happened, but she still had her father. Her mother’s loss didn’t really hit her until she began navigating the difficult teenage years.

“As I grew up, it affected me more because she wasn’t there for big parts of my life,” said Tori, now 17. “Especially now, for graduation.”

Tori’s stepmother was able to fill some of the void, as was Tori’s aunt — her mother’s twin sister. Tori considered studying psychology and becoming a grief counselor to help others in similar situations, but she changed her mind. She didn’t want to be defined by her mother’s death.

“I didn’t want my whole life to revolve around my tragedies,” the eloquent teen said. “It’s made me want to do better and want to get through it. I don’t feel like because she died, I’m graduating, but I feel like it’s helped me become a better person and help me to get where I am.”

Tori is graduating 10th in her class this year. She has participated in the National Honor Society, Student Advisory and Medal United Nations panel. She plans to attend Adrian College this autumn. She is undecided about her major, having changed her mind about studying psychology, but she still feels she has a lot to offer other young people.

Tori’s calm, confident outward demeanor doesn’t show it, but she will be thinking of her mother as she walks across the high school stage in her cap and gown Thursday.

“The big moments in my life have always been sad,” she said. “I just want to forget the sadness for the day and just enjoy graduation, just enjoy being successful.

“I don’t really talk about it a lot with anybody,” she added. “I do talk to my mom at home sometimes though. I just feel like she’s there.”

Tori is also able to share her feelings with some friends, including Danielle.

‘I’ve lost many loved ones in my life’

Danielle Moreland, 19, has lost two fathers in her young lifetime.

Her biological father died when she was 3. Like Tori, Danielle was so young then, she didn’t really begin to feel the loss until she was older.

When Danielle was 4, her mother remarried. Danielle’s new stepfather became a treasured father figure to her for the next 15 years. When Tori’s mother died, Danielle gave her elementary school friend a journal in which to write her thoughts. Both girls knew how it felt to lose a parent.

And then, last Memorial Day weekend, Danielle’s stepfather died in an car accident. When Danielle graduates, she will also be preparing to remember her stepfather on the one-year anniversary of his death four days later.

“I’ve lost many loved ones in my life,” Danielle said. “That made me a stronger person, but it’s a day-to-day thing I had to deal with. It’s very hard. I felt like losing my stepdad out of nowhere, just instantly, was the hardest because you couldn’t share your last stories with him, say you loved him, say goodbye to him.”

Danielle said she benefited from the support of her family, friends, school and entire community when her stepfather died.

“I didn’t realize how much I was loved until he was gone, how much he was there and how much he cared for me and my family,” she said. “The day that he died, everyone came to my house, all my friends, my family. The day of the funeral, everyone was at the funeral and the visitation. The teachers came and visited. People stopped by my house for two weeks straight. It didn’t take the pain away, but it made me happy.”

Just a few weeks after her stepfather died, Danielle competed in a race with Montabella High School’s track team. They placed seventh in the state.

“I just ran,” she recalled.

Danielle and Tori both work at McDonald’s in Edmore as part of Montabella’s Community-As-School (CAS) program. Both young women were part of homecoming court this school year. After graduation, Danielle plans to attend Mid-Michigan Community College and then study dental hygiene at Ferris State University.

“I have matured a lot,” she said. “I have taken responsibility for my brother. I’m there for him 100 percent.”

Just like Tori, graduation will be a bittersweet occasion for Danielle.

“Now that it’s almost time, I feel a lot of loss,” Danielle said. “He’s not going to watch me walk, he’s not going to watch me succeed in life.”

As Michael Hewitt listened to the young women share their stories, he wholeheartedly agreed with the sentiment of longterm pain and loss.

“People tell you to get over the pain, it’s going to get easier,” he said. “It doesn’t get easier. You learn to live with the pain, There’s so many things that remind you of the person you lost. I don’t cry about anything now. When the one person you love the most is taken away, you don’t cry about anything. It makes you stronger.”

‘I want to wear a proud title’

Michael Hewitt, 19, never knew his father. He was gone before Michael was born. Michael’s mother said his father had died, but Michael was never really sure.

Michael’s mother remarried. The mother and son struggled to understand each other and often ended up arguing and fighting. Michael made some bad decisions. He was headed down a dead-end road.

When Michael’s mother got divorced and began struggling with illness, he changed his priorities. He wanted to make his mother happy. He got a job at McDonald’s in Edmore  via Montabella’s CAS program. He and his mother were able to move out of a small campground in Edmore and into a nice apartment in Howard City.

“She started getting better,” Michael recalled of his mother. “I don’t think I’ve ever been happier than I was the last month of her life.”

The night of Sept. 22, 2010, Michael and his mother told each other “I love you,” as they always did before they went to sleep. The next morning, Michael went into his mother’s room to say good morning. He wasn’t prepared for what he found.

His mother had died in her sleep.

“I didn’t cry,” Michael recalled. “I called the paramedic. Then I kicked the door off its hinges. I was feeling a lot of anger.”

Michael said his girlfriend at the time helped him get through the ordeal. He went to Florida to be with some family members for a while. He missed a few weeks of school, but he eventually came back to class. His best friend’s mother took him in as her own son.

“I found family in a lot of friends,” he said. “They really took care of me.”

Michael did more than make up for lost time in the classroom. His grades went from Cs, Ds and Fs to a 4.0 GPA this past trimester.

His motivation? The Marines.

Michael enlisted the Marines’ delayed entry program. He found out the Marines wouldn’t accept him unless he graduated from high school, so he found a new focus. He began studying and doing homework. He trains for the Marines in Mount Pleasant and he works out every day to stay in shape. He will be fully enrolled at Camp Pendleton in California by November.

After he’s fully enlisted, he plans to attend Montcalm Community College and then Ferris State University to study construction management.

“My life pretty much is strictly military right now,” he said. “I’m always training. I don’t have time to sit and think. I’d rather be tired and on edge and know I’m focused, than be lazy and have too much time to think.

“I want to wear a proud title. Even if the world around you isn’t that great, it doesn’t mean you still can’t be great.”

Michael wears a permanent reminder of his mother — a tattoo on the shoulder of his back.

“Mom’s not here physically, but she’s here in spirit,” he said. “My mom comes to me in my dreams a lot if I’m struggling and tells me what to do.”

‘I’m 16 years old and I’m the man of the house now’

Paul Bellingar had to grow up fast, like Michael.

Paul was 16 years old when he lost his father to cancer two years ago. His father battled the cancer for almost six years, giving the family time to prepare for the loss, but also taking an emotional toll on everyone.

“It was definitely a hard time in my life,” said Paul, now 18 years old. “Having a strong relationship with God definitely helped a lot.”

Paul’s peers who had experienced their own loss were curious as to whether it was easier to have time to say goodbye to a parent instead of losing them suddenly.

“There’s always more that you want to say,” Paul said. “The hardest was telling him goodbye. It’s the hardest thing you’re ever going to do in your life. I miss my dad every single dad of my life. I’m 16 years old and I’m the man of the house now. You have to take care of your mom, your sister.”

Michael sympathized with Paul as he told his story.

“You’re thrown into adulthood way too quick,” he said.

Paul said family and friends helped him deal with his father’s loss — especially his two grandfathers.

“They taught me a lot,” he said. “I learned things every day about how to be an adult, how to make decisions. A few of my friends came to the funeral and that really helped just to see them there. My faith really helped the most. Every day is a struggle, but it helps a lot when you’ve got God on your side.”

Paul finds going to the cemetery peaceful and fulfilling.

“You have bad days and you just really miss them and you go there and sit and talk and you feel better,” he said.

Michael and Tori find cemeteries a comforting place too. However, Danielle finds it makes her feel anxious and upset.

“I can’t go there,” she said. “It’s just too soon.”

Paul works at The Wildlife Gallery in Blanchard through Montabella’s CAS program. The animals there make him think of the fun hunting trips he shared with his father.

Paul served on the Student Advisory and was also a member of homecoming court. He played baseball, basketball and golf. He plans to study welding at Montcalm Community College. Like his peers, he will be thinking of his lost parent when he graduates.

“I know he’d be really proud of me for doing it,” he said. “I’m going to be sad, but at the same time I’m going to be happy.”

‘If I can make it through, why can’t anyone?’

At 15, Dusty Snow and his twin brother, Levi, were headed down a dangerous path.

Both brothers were into drugs. They couldn’t have cared less about school.

Dusty’s brother was especially reckless, reacting with strong emotions when relationships didn’t work out. He overdosed on drugs twice over a girl. The first time, he survived. The second time, he didn’t.

“I beat everything that night, just hit everything,” said Dusty of reacting to his brother’s death on Oct. 22, 2009.

Friends and family tried to console Dusty with religion, but he was even more traumatized when people opined about where his brother had gone because of the way he had died.

His grandmother was different. She was able to communicate with and understand Dusty in a way no one else could. Sadly, she died a year later.

Dusty’s brother’s death had hit their mother hard and Dusty felt like he was on his own. He tried going back to school.

“It didn’t work,” he said. “I freaked out.”

He could have continued down the path he was already on — speeding even faster toward destruction. Instead, he made the decision to turn around and head in the opposite direction.

Dusty’s girlfriend and her family took him in as one of their own. The girlfriend’s father repaired cars and began to teach Dusty the trade. Dusty found auto body work enjoyable and fulfilling. He quickly learned how to buy and sell vehicles and make a nice profit.

And he gave high school another try.

Dusty’s grades slowly improved. He participated on the school’s forensic team, as well as the Essence of Stage program. He’s even mentoring a younger struggling student. Now 18, he’s preparing to graduate. He plans to study auto collision at Lansing Community College. He wants to have his own auto body shop someday.

Before Dusty’s brother’s death, “I didn’t care about school,” he said. “I wasn’t going to go to college, wasn’t going to do anything. Now I want to go to college, want to own my own body shop. I think that’s the biggest accomplishment for me — I dropped all the drugs.

“He’s kept me motivated,” said Dusty of his late brother. “If I can make it through, why can’t anyone?”

‘I try to make every day count’

Emily Malina, 18, describes herself as “a little clone” of her father.

Her father lived in Texas, but they shared a bond that kept them close despite the miles.

Danielle Moreland comforts Emily Malina as the Montabella teens discuss unexpectedly losing their fathers. — Daily News/Cory Smith

When Emily was 14, she was called out of class on Feb. 13, 2009, and came to the school office to find her mother and siblings. They told her that her father had died, very unexpectedly. He was on several different medications for Meniere’s disease — an inner ear disorder that affects hearing and balance — and the meds had accidentally mixed in a toxic way.

“I asked my mom if it was a dream,” Emily recalled. “I didn’t really believe it. I thought they were playing a trick on me. I thought maybe he had come up for a surprise visit from Texas and was hiding.”

But it wasn’t a dream. The family quickly flew to Texas for the funeral.

“I was like, this is a dream, will somebody please come and wake me up?” Emily recalled tearfully. “It was the worst day of my life.”

Emily started her freshman year that fall. Her entry into high school was made even more difficult by classmates speculating about her father’s death. Emily felt alienated and kept to herself, only sharing her feelings with her mother and siblings. She had always had an outgoing, go-getter personality. Now she felt like a zombie.

Slowly but surely, she began to come alive again.

Emily began attending local camps, including a Michigan State University government camp, where she won the highest citizenship award out of 400 other young women. She met new people there and they opened her eyes to the world and its possibilities. She is now a counselor at that camp.

“That really inspired me,” she said. “I felt some of me coming back.”

She began to participate in school activities — cross country, track, basketball, forensics, the Model United Nations, the National Honor Society. She is now class president and is graduating fourth in her class. She also has a job at the ice cream shop in Edmore.

When Danielle’s stepfather died last year, Emily knew how to comfort her. The two young women bonded in a way few others could.

“God will never give you more than you can handle,” Emily said. “Losing my dad really helped me find my faith. It was horrible and I wish it never would’ve happened, but I can see positivity in that.”

Emily loves recalling the memory of her father — an optimistic man with a fun-loving personality. He talked to her about going to college when she was young. Now she is going to Syracuse University to study international relations. She will study abroad in Italy her first semester. She’s thinking about becoming a diplomat.

Emily and her father had a tradition of watching “Star Trek” together — the original 1960s television series. She continues to watch the show almost every night. She attended a Star Trek convention and got to meet Leonard Nimoy, who played “Mr. Spock” on the television show. She showed him a picture of her father and got a hug in return.

“Little do William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy know, but they have been there for me like nobody else,” Emily said with a laugh.

‘It’s amazing to hear their stories’

Montabella High School Principal Shane Riley said four or five years ago, he didn’t have high hopes for seeing Dusty or Michael graduate.

“The idea that they were able to turn around their lives from some decisions and become productive has been a great influence on other kids and will provide me with examples in the future for kids who think they might be unable to graduate,” Riley said.

Riley knew Paul and his family before Paul’s father got cancer.

“I watched him from when he was much younger start to deal with this whole idea of cancer,” Riley said. “To see him mature, he has had to grow up, he is the man of the family now.”

Riley has seen Danielle mature over the years too. He’s seen her classmates mature alongside her as a result.

“As they kids have matured, they have realized they need to be there with their friends a little bit more,” he said. “Danielle has a very fun personality. That was a tough time for her because of her fun, easygoing personality.”

Riley said as a senior, Tori helped create a new mentoring program the school implemented this past year.
“She was one of those kids who said, ‘I think this is a good idea, I think mentoring is a good program,’” he said. “She’s a good student. She has a lot to offer.”

Riley has known Emily since he coached her on the school’s fifth-grade basketball team.

“It was a hard time when she lost her dad,” he recalled. “She felt people didn’t understand what she was going through. I’m excited about her future. She has for the last year or two talked about spreading her wings and getting out and doing something big.”

Riley will be as proud as anyone Thursday when these six student walk across the stage in their cap and gown.

“It’s amazing to hear their stories to understand there’s a lot of different dynamics in each of their stories even though there’s the common theme of loss,” he said. “They all could have made different decisions and gone down different paths. It’ll be exciting to give them diplomas this week.”

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